Once a wide-eyed kid trying to sell his first car after hooking on at a dealership after college, Rick Hendrick has grown to become a legend in auto sales and racing. He’s also a testament to the human will for his ability to persevere through an unthinkable tragedy.
It’s been three decades since Hendrick, 64, sped into NASCAR to become the most successful team owner in the sport’s history, compiling a deep stable of racers that now includes legends Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne. His drivers have celebrated 11 Sprint Cup Championships since 1995—the next closest team in that period has three.
The four drivers and their respective crews work well together, Hendrick explains, because of their shared goal to take the checkered flag and win championships. “If our people share information until the race begins, all four cars will be more competitive and have a better chance of going to victory lane,” Hendrick says. “Once the race starts, we’re competing against each other. But win or lose, we’re going to do it together.”
Hendrick insists that to have such success when managing people in any path of life, you can’t force communication and teamwork. “They have to trust it’s the best road to success, both as individuals and as a company, and we have to give them the right tools,” Hendrick says. “We just finished our 30th season, and culture is something we’ve fostered over all of that time. It didn’t just happen from Day One.”
Hendrick works diligently to spread credit around the garage, but anyone who is part of his team knows the success wouldn’t be possible if not for the man who assembled the winning parts.
His accomplishments in business are comparable to the trophies he has won in competition. He has amassed a fortune selling cars. After attending North Carolina State University, he joined forces with Mike Leith, an established car dealer. Once Hendrick learned the business, Leith named the 23-year-old general sales manager of his new car import operation. Three years later, Hendrick gathered up his money to buy a struggling dealership in Bennettsville, S.C., and in doing so, became the youngest Chevrolet dealer in the United States.
Hendrick made that stressed dealership the most profitable in the region. From those small beginnings, Hendrick Automotive Group has grown to more than 100 retail franchises across 13 states; it employs close to 8,000 people, making it the nation’s second-largest privately held dealership group.
Success for Hendrick has come with great struggle and loss, however.
On a foggy Sunday in October 2004, Hendrick was at home in North Carolina and not at the track in Martinsville, Va., getting ready for the Subway 500. As he attempted to keep tabs on his team from afar, a plane Hendrick owned was preparing to land at Blue Ridge Airport near the race track with 10 people on board. But the Beechcraft Super King Air 200 never made it, first going missing from air traffic control, only to be discovered crashed into Bull Mountain, seven miles from the airport. All 10 aboard the plane were killed, including four members of the Hendrick family: John Hendrick, Rick’s brother and the president of Hendrick Motorsports; Kimberly and Jennifer Hendrick, John Hendrick’s 22-year-old twin daughters; and Rick’s son, Ricky, a former NASCAR Busch Series driver. Also killed were several of Rick’s closest friends and business confidants.
Those were the darkest hours of Hendrick’s life. He says he only survived that time thanks to his faith, friends and family. “If you don’t have those, I’m not sure how you make it,” Hendrick says.
During a news conference when he returned to the track a month later, Hendrick vowed to honor those lost in the plane crash by moving forward in life and competition with even greater passion. “I can’t replace my family…. The way we close those holes is together—each one of us picks up pieces.” The same was true, Hendrick said, of the employees he lost. Like his family, they all loved racing. “To honor all of those people on that plane, I’m more committed to this sport than I’ve ever been,” Hendrick said.
“We continue to be amazed at [Hendrick’s] ability to persevere,” says Doug Duchardt, the racing group’s general manager. “He talks about gaining strength from his family, friends and faith, but we also take strength from him…. No one cares more or works harder than him. All of us take inspiration from that.”
As the decade wore on, Hendrick Motorsports put as much of its resources into winning in Martinsville, the site of the crash, as it has to winning the Daytona 500, the sport’s Super Bowl. “It’s hard to describe the emotions I feel every time I go back,” Hendrick told last year. “There will always be sadness, but at the same time, I always want to win there to honor everyone on that plane.”
Many times in the years since the crash, just watching a race has Sports Illustrated been painful for Hendrick. Amid all the adversity for the man at the helm, the past decade has been an incredible time for his team. Johnson, the crown jewel of Hendrick’s team, won five consecutive season titles, from 2006 to 2010—a streak that may never be broken—and added another championship in 2013. Johnson broke into the Sprint Cup series as a 26-year-old rookie in 2001 and quickly evolved into its most dominating racer, thanks to help from his crew and others under the Hendrick umbrella, including the team owner.
“The success comes from [Hendrick’s] genuine concern for his people,” Duchardt says. “He wants to give each person an opportunity to succeed and live up to their potential, and, in turn, everyone works hard to help Rick and our team win. You see that both in racing and at Hendrick Automotive Group. He sets the direction and leads by example.”
Hendrick says his secrets to leadership success, on the track or in a business setting, are much the same.
“The industries are different, but we approach things in a similar way,” Hendrick says. “The focus on people is the same…. It’s important to treat everyone with respect, reward great work and give people opportunities. We prefer to promote from within, and I love seeing talented young people grow and stay with us long-term. It’s the best way to protect our culture.”